It takes a true artist to save a Samuel Beckett play from falling flat on its face. Thankfully, of John Hurt‘s artistry, there was never a question. In BAM‘s production of Krapp’s Last Tape at the Harvey Theater, Hurt plays Krapp, Beckett’s constipated hero with a fatal passion for bananas (which he stores in his desk drawer). We meet him on his 69th birthday, listening to tape reels he’s recorded throughout his life, documenting everything from the menial to the profound. The succinct play (one act, one hour long) is spent mostly in silence, interspersed with Hurt’s voice on tape, and Hurt’s voice, in real time, critiquing his pompous past self. The first tape recalls the events of his 39th birthday, (a fraught sexual encounter, his recounting of his mother’s death) and carries with it a mournful, erotic charge–the second is recorded onstage, and full of omission.
“Revelled in the word ‘spool'” He says of the day’s efforts, neglecting to mention the abusive alcohol and banana consumption, as well as a trip to the dictionary to look up the word ‘viduity’, the kind of word his 39-year-old self was capable of dashing off in a sentence.
Beckett’s work notoriously revels in repetition, and when it’s not boring, it’s exasperating. The nice thing about a play this boring on paper—and on stage—is that it becomes all about the actor. We get to study him, his movement, his face, the way the one overhead spotlight falls enfolded into the creases of his face. If the actor can get our attention, the genius of the play somehow gets grandfathered in. Hurt is the kind of actor you could watch soundlessly eating 10 bananas, and still not feel compelled to quit the theater. His brilliant portrayal of Quentin Crisp in both The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman in New York, as well as his work in this year’s Melancholia and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is acting of an old-world stamp. Through his lens, one understands what Beckett might have actually wanted to achieve by writing this play, aside from pissing off his audience: the effect of a half-hour long soliloquy without the bothersome pressure of a forward-moving plot to curtail it.
Krapp’s Last Tape will play at BAM’s Harvey Theater until December 18th.